Smarts

How to become smarter and more effective.

Smarts: It's Not How Much You Learn That Matters. It's How Much You Remember

Half a dozen things to remember about memory.

Review in an hour; then in a day
Forgetting follows a pattern. There are steep drop offs in retention after 60 minutes and after 24 hours. Immediately after learning something, you will be able to retrieve a great deal of information. But then you will forget the information rapidly if you do not review it - first within an hour and then within a day. The best times to review information are right before you go to sleep and right when you wake up. This is so for three reasons. First, in sleep the brain secretes chemicals that cement memories. Second, forgetting happens because information we learn later knocks out information that is already in our heads. Third, most forgetting happens because our heads are already full of information and have trouble packing more in.

Work on what you want to remember
Working on what you want to remember is one of the ways you beat the forgetting curves. For example, "Hi," she said, "I'm Marion Brown.

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"Darn," I said to myself, "I am lousy with names." But then I recalled that you remember things that you work on so I thought: This Brown is a blonde. Maybe she went to Brown University. She wears a wedding ring so Marion is the marrying-type. But she's a one r-marrying type. Marion has only one r.

The best way to make information memorable is to use the keyword method, because it links our verbal memory with our spatial memory. Suppose you were learning Japanese. The word の, pronounced ‘no,' works like the possessive (apostrophe s) does in English. Remember it by saying to yourself, "It looks like a Pac Man. Do I want to be eaten by (be possessed by) a Pac Man? Why, the answer is No."

Repeating improves recall
If you seem never to be able to remember your doctor's phone number when you need it most, consider using the phone number as part of a password on your computer, for example, Dr5551212Jones. Your recall of the phone number will greatly improve by incorporating it into a procedure you repeat very often. Doing a task over and over can improve your memory of the task details considerably. Make a conscious effort to incorporate important facts into tasks you practice often.

Don't go beyond seven
The average short-term memory capacity is 7 plus or minus 2 pieces of information. That is 5 to 9 pieces. This is why phone numbers are seven digits long. "Ten digits," you say? Yes and no. You are supposed to have the area code stored in long-term memory so that you say, "New York is 212." Then you hold in short-term memory the other seven digits that somebody is rattling off until you successfully dial the number. So if you don't already know the area code, you'd better get a pen.

Short term memory is only what you hold in your mind at the moment. If you don't elaborate on it - find some way to make it stick - then as soon as you stop repeating the information to yourself, it will be gone.

To remember, focus not on sound, but on meaning
In addition to the 7 plus or minus 2 limit, short-term memory last for only about 20 seconds. When it comes to language, short-term memory generally encodes information by sound, while long-term memory encodes information by meaning. If you give somebody as list of words with the word labor in it and distract them so they can't work on the information to transfer it to long-term memory, they are likely to make the sort of mistake represented by reporting that the word later was on the list. If you give them time to memorize the list, but not enough time so that that they can memorize it perfectly, then they are likely to make not sound-mistakes, but meaning mistakes, such as reporting the word work.

Therefore, when you want to remember something, don't rely on catchy rhymes or other auditory tricks, aim for meaning. Similarly, to make your words more memorable, try to make it meaningful and to help people make connections between what you are saying and things they already know.

Make it memorable by using first and last
Items at the beginning and end of a list are more easily recalled than items in the middle. So too with the first and last topics in a speech or in a text so put the important points in the introduction and conclusion. Within paragraphs, put the ideas you want remembered in the first or last sentences. So too with conversations, begin and end with what you want remembered.

The reverse of this principle works too. Bury the bad news in the middle of your report or presentation to decrease its impact and increase the chance that people will forget it. By consciously arranging how you present information you can increase the effectiveness of your communication.

 

Tad Waddington, Ph.D. is the author of Lasting Contribution: How to Think, Plan, and Act to Accomplish Meaningful Work, a book that has won five prestigious awards.

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